Pantomime politics,Italian-style

Rivers of refuse, bust-ups in parliament, the fall of Romano Prodi’s government: Dominic Standish reports on Italy’s descent into farce.

Dominic Standish

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Last week, Italian politics descended into farce. The government led by Romano Prodi lost a vital vote of confidence in the Senate – the upper house of the Italian parliament – by five votes. Several senators celebrated by popping bottles of champagne across the Senate and waving mortadella sausage (Prodi has been given the nickname of the ‘bland mortadella’). In the footage below, the Senate speaker can be seen urging the jubilant senators to stop behaving as if they were in the pub:

The failure of the government to win the vote of confidence was prompted by the resignation of the justice minister Clemente Mastella and his withdrawal of support for the government. Prodi’s government fell despite the defection of one of Mastella’s supporters, Nuccio Cusumano, who announced during the Senate debate that he would break his party line and vote for Prodi. This announcement caused uproar in the Senate, where lawmakers allegedly spat at Cusumano and called him a ‘queer, cuckold, whore, toilet, piece of shit’. Cusumano then appeared to faint and was carried out on a stretcher.

Cusumano’s collapse mirrors the moral collapse of politics in Italy. It’s little wonder that Italians have such low regard for politicians when they call each other such names. Italian parliamentary debate has often been degraded, but these antics were farcical even by Italian standards. It is tempting to laugh off such behaviour as political pantomime, but it is a sad indictment of the disrespect for democracy in Italy. Indeed, if anything, the fall of Prodi’s government has demonstrated the entrenchment of anti-democratic trends in Italy.

In 1992-4, the Tangentopoli (Kickback City) corruption scandals led to the implosion of the political parties that had dominated Italy’s First Republic since the Second World War. For the first time in Italian history, judges and the prosecuting magistrate were given independence from the political executive to investigate politicians. The launching of new political parties led to high expectations for a democratic Second Republic. But political scandals and economic sluggishness have continued to plague Italy. Despite Prodi’s promises of modernisation after his election in 2005, corruption and decay have continued. The inability of Prodi’s government to clear up piles of mounting refuse in Naples in recent weeks has come to symbolise the rotten character of his administration.

In fact, Mastella personified these problems. His resignation came after he had been involved in the garbage crisis in Naples and had been placed under investigation for corruption, along with his wife. In the eyes of many Italians, Mastella’s downfall epitomised the self-serving character of politicians. The day after Prodi resigned due to Mastella’s withdrawal of support, Gian Maria Fara, the head of the leading Italian think-tank, Eurispes, launched a report (Italy 2008) which stated:

‘We are facing a ruling class which is increasing its powers and ability to exert social control in inverse proportion to its authoritativeness, its credibility, its consensus. As it falls in the estimation of citizens, so it increases its own powers. The more the desire grows in society for good policy making and political participation, the more it turns in on itself, becomes separate, indifferent.’ (1)

It has been claimed (2) that Italian MPs gain free entrance to cinemas and football matches and the Italian political system costs Italian taxpayers more than the combined budgets of the French and Spanish parliaments. The particularly parasitic character of Prodi’s government was summed up by its reputation for simultaneously having some of the best-paid politicians in Europe, while ‘modernising’ the Italian economy with a clampdown on tax evasion and cuts in public spending. In 20 months, Prodi’s government halved the budget deficit from four per cent to two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and pushed up the tax burden from 40 per cent to 43.3 per cent of GDP (3).

These numbers may have impressed Prodi’s former employers at the European Commission, but in combination with reducing pension benefits and strict taxation, these measures did not endear Prodi to an electorate that is traditionally highly sceptical of the state. Public morale was further dented by the EU statistical office announcement that Spaniards now earn more than Italians (4) and a cut in the Bank of Italy’s growth forecast for the Italian economy from 1.7 per cent to one per cent in 2008 (5). Most Italians I know feel they are paying more taxes, facing higher prices and that they need to budget family finances more carefully.

The leader of the opposition, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has responded with pledges to reduce taxes, including cutting local council property tax. Simultaneously, Berlusconi has promised to increase land subsidies for young families and spending on infrastructure projects such as a bridge to Sicily. Opinion polls published last Sunday in the leading Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera indicated that Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition would win between 54.5 per cent and 57.6 per cent of the vote in a general election. In contrast, the centre-left coalition would only win between 42.4 per cent and 45 per cent of the vote. Another poll showed that the centre-right would gain a majority of between 11 and 35 seats in the Senate.

Given these polls, it is not surprising that the parties in the centre-right coalition are more enthusiastic about an election than those in the centre-left coalition. So while Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance Party, have called for an immediate election, Walter Veltroni, head of the new Democratic Party leading the centre-left coalition and Franco Giordano, who leads the Communist Refoundation Party, have called for its postponement. Moreover, Giordano argues that the elections should only take place after a technical government, that is, a non-parliamentary administration, has reformed electoral law. ‘We asked the head of state for an interim government to unblock the electoral law’, states Giordano.

After a five-day consultation with political parties ended on 29 January, Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano announced a period of reflection before he will decide whether there will be an immediate general election or a technical government. Napolitano is able to draw on the historical precedent of the technical government which was introduced during the Tangentopoli crisis. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the governor of the Bank of Italy, became the first non-parliamentarian prime minister in Italian history. Ciampi’s principal task was to ensure the passage of an electoral law based on majority rule rather than proportional representation. If Napolitano decides on a technical government, he would choose an interim prime minister and a variety of politicians considered best suited to run the country until elections are held between June this year and spring 2009. This would follow the trend towards highly managerial governments in Europe. This includes the UK, where the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has attempted to create a ‘government of all the talents’ – that is, one based on who is seen to have expertise in an area rather than one purely based on party political affiliation.

The priority for a technical government in Italy would be to introduce a new electoral law. This would replace the one instituted by Berlusconi during the final months of his last government in 2005, which is based on proportional representation and blocks lists of candidates chosen by political parties. The law also means parties need less than two per cent of the vote to enter Parliament, which allowed 40 different parties to win seats at the last election in 2006. This law contributed to the fragile character of Prodi’s government coalition that ruled with nine parties, although would have been less influential if Prodi had won a greater majority in the 2006 election. But Prodi had to survive 30 votes of confidence during 20 months in government. Prodi even resigned last February after failing to gain support for deploying Italian troops in Afghanistan and expanding the US military base near Vicenza. Three days later, Napolitano persuaded Prodi to stay on. Prodi was frustrated by his fragile majority and criticised the electoral law. ‘How can we have elections’, Prodi continued, ‘with this electoral law? We will repeat all the Italian tragedies and today’s political fragmentation.’

Nevertheless, the Corriere della Sera polls from Sunday 27 January showed 61 per cent of Italians want an early election and only 33 per cent prefer some sort of transitional/technical government. Berlusconi predicted there will be ‘millions of people on the streets of Rome’ if an election is not called immediately. The UK Independent newspaper suggested these comments invoked the threat to march on Rome by Italy’s former fascist dictator:

‘Opponents were livid at the remark, claiming Mr Berlusconi was trying to intimidate the head of state, evoking the ‘March on Rome’ by thugs of the Fascist Party which catapulted Benito Mussolini into power in 1921 amid a comparable parliamentary stalemate.’ (6)

Similarly, the UK Guardian newspaper reported that in Rome, Berlusconi’s ‘“post-fascist” allies marched down the street in the city centre singing the national anthem’ after the fall of the Prodi government (7).

While British liberal journalists fantasise about Berlusconi’s fascist threat to democracy, in the real world of Italian politics it is the parties associated with the left that want to curtail democratic elections. ‘Elections would push the country into a dramatic crisis’, stated Veltroni who is likely to lead the centre-left if an election is called. Prominent publications including The Economist (8) and the Financial Times (9) have warned against returning Berlusconi to power. While Berlusconi has a track record of tailoring Italian politics to his private interests and has faced numerous corruption trials, his opponents should not be ignored for their anti-democratic tendencies.

Dr Dominic Standish is an adjunct professor for the University of Kansas (USA) at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Italy. You can email him {encode=”dstandish@europe.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked:

Dominc Standish explained why we should save Venice and took a critical view of the Treviso’s car ban on environment day. He also criticised the European press coverage of Italy’s 2001 elections. Elsewhere Frank Furedi welcomed the reawakening of European democracy but also asked whether we were facing the political end of Europe. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) EURISPES – Fara: Italy held hostage by its ruling class, AGI News agency, 25 Janaury 2008

(2) The Italian Slob, The Times, 22 December 2007

(3) Berlusconi Reborn, Guardian, 26 Janaury 2008

(4) Berlusconi eyes return to power, John Hooper, Guardian, 25 January 2008

(5) Italy is cast adrift as Prime Minister Prodi resigns, Wall Street Journal Europe, 25 January 2008

(6) Berlusconi invokes Mussolini in threat to march on Rome, Peter Popham, Independent, 29 January 2008

(7) Berlusconi eyes return to power, John Hooper, Guardian 25 January 2008

(8) Subtle Silvio strikes again, Economist, 22 November 2007

(9) Precarious Prodi, Financial Times, 22 January 2008

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